Here’s a paragraph from my upcoming book “I Have the Right to Remain Silent…But I Lack the Ability:”
Four years of attending an all-girl Catholic high school with the city’s lowest tuition taught me so much about diversity. When I was ten, my folks had pulled me out of swimming lessons because the pools were integrated. What did that word mean? Eavesdropping, I also overheard other words that didn’t make any sense to me. Clearly, two worlds existed outside my front door, and they were never supposed to collide. Once, Daddy came to a father-daughter lunch event at St. Joe High. We sat with some of my friends and had good conversations. That’s why it truly puzzled me later when he asked why I hadn’t made friends with any of the white girls.
Discord, divisiveness and despair are three words that sadly still characterize our conversations on race relations in our country.
I was recently in New Orleans for a family event. My husband and I stayed at a boutique hotel on Magazine Street that more than exceeded our expectations. Besides the usual criteria of location, price, and cleanliness, the staff was delightfully friendly. From the front desk to the concierge to the housekeeping staff, we were greeted with smiles and offers to assist us with finding our way around the Big Easy.
No worries. I was home. Still, my favorite encounter was the last one as we were checking out. As I left our room, I literally bumped into a woman. I apologized for being so clumsy.
Oh baby. That’s no biggie. I was only checking to see if y’all were leaving so I could clean the room.
Her N’awlins accent was pitch perfect.We appeared to be close in age, and of course, I had to stop for a quick chat.
You must be from here.
Yes mam. I’m Daniele, from the west bank.
Get outta here! I’m Maddy, a best-banker myself. Where at on the west bank?
That’s crazy! Me too. What street?
Oh my Gawd! I’m from Tita Street. We grew up right around the corner from each other.
You mean right across the woods from each other, don’t you?
She didn’t have to say another word because I immediately knew what she meant. Tita and Odeon Streets were separated by a stretch of undeveloped, wooded land that bordered the Magellan drainage canal. The trees were our playground; there was even a huge mound of dirt my brothers had nicknamed “Pork Chop Hill.” Here we fashioned rope swings, had countless impromptu picnics, and found secret hiding places for our almost-daily kick-the-can games. Our cousins came to visit—they couldn’t keep up with us “canal rats” as we scrambled through poison ivy and snake-infested briar patches. Still, we all knew we were to only go so far in. Why? Because “the blacks” lived beyond the woods.
We knew better than to ask what that meant. Odeon Street was simply off-limits, a place to be avoided and feared. We had one black student in our elementary school in the mid-sixties–a nice, nondescript, well-behaved “boy.” He quietly made friends and he just as quietly went about his business. You know, like he was “supposed to.” We didn’t question any adult prejudices. We obeyed. There were disconnects, to be sure though. We tumbled these about in our brains, trying to tease out what we perceived was off-kilter. One story I’d like to recount here is an example. I recall this to the best of my memory; my siblings and former playmates will undoubtedly dispute the details. Perhaps my perceptions have been colored by evolving views on justice and feminism. If a picture is worth a thousand words, indulge me as I paint a written one for you.
Our next-door neighbor-lady was married to a hard-shell Protestant man who would tolerate no forms of electronic entertainment in their home. Fortunately for her and her three sons, he worked out-of-town for long stretches of time. As soon as he’d leave, she’d walk to the local rental store six blocks up on “the highway.” She’d return carrying a small television set under one arm, a small radio tucked under the other. Sometimes she’d take her older sons with her, but typically, she went alone. In the heat of summer or chill of winter. Bertie was determined that her boys would have some fun if she had any say. Feisty and independent out from behind her husband’s shadow, she loved those boys with every ounce of her being.
The youngest son had been crippled from infancy by polio. His brothers cut him no slack. It was not surprising to find all three wrestling in the front yard, a noisy tangle of arms, legs and metal braces. They’d toss each other around on the back porch in a fit of pique over some sibling misunderstanding. Often, they wore only their underwear because one would wake another from a sound sleep just for the hell of it. From this I learned at a young age that boys were fashioned quite differently from girls, emotionally and physically. My brothers were not fighters, nor were they allowed to run around in their briefs. From this I also learned that while disabilities can separate, brotherly love and huge doses of testosterone could also unite, albeit in a stranglehold. Their horseplay only occurred when their father was not around. From this I learned about identity management—we can be several people in one person.
Once, their father returned home unexpectedly. We overheard angry shouts followed by a loud crash. The rented television came flying out of their back door. There were no tears that I can recall. After he left, Miss Bertie simply walked back up the street and returned with another set. Even then, I wondered how she could afford to cover the damages to the original one. Mothers did not work outside the home in my neighborhood of the 60s.
When they were teens, some confrontation occurred between her boys and “those blacks” that lived beyond the woods. Whatever it was, it caused enough anger for Bertie to walk back there, knock on some doors, and demand an apology. She’d gone alone on her first trip, a furious white woman with nothing on her side but self-righteous anger. She returned with her three sons on the second trip. The “whatever” that caused the original fight between her boys and “them,” remains a mystery. The “who” had necessitated this second trip however. She marched back with all three sons, following slowly and miserably in their mother’s shadow. The youngest drug his leg brace behind him; she prodded him to keep up.
We later learned that she had learned that it was her boys who had started the fight. It was her boys who’d shouted the N-word repeatedly, a word she’d never been averse to using herself. It was her boys who’d chased a couple of frightened black kids through the woods, knocking them to the ground and tearing up their clothes. All the boys had returned to their respective homes bloody and beaten. Clothes did not come cheap; Bertie’s boys wore hand-me-downs with patches just like everyone else did. Black eyes, bloodied noses and sore limbs had to heal on their own—neither side, black or white, could afford unnecessary trips to the doctor. Yet, unafraid and humbled, this mother made her boys apologize to the boys whose noses they’d bloodied. She made them apologize to the mothers of boys who’d returned home with torn clothes. From then on, I don’t recall she ever mentioned another word about what had happened. Whispers in the neighborhood told me she was considered crazy for “taking her life in her hands” for doing what she’d done. I only know Miss Bertie, a short, round mama-bear from my neighborhood, had grown a foot taller and gained my quiet respect. I never said that aloud until now.
Four years at St. Joseph High taught me that we not only possess different talents, but that everyone came from different backgrounds. Geography, family, traditions, gender, religion, race…name any demographic measurement and you identify a co-culture to which someone belongs. Today, we favor the word tribe. I get the proud distinctions about culture, heritage and lineage. Still, I wonder why do we seem so intent on being divided?
Our differences back in my high school days were real, to be sure, but somehow, we mostly managed to see past them and become sisters. I still want to believe my daddy was secretly proud that I made so many friends so easily, no matter what their skin color. Some of these girls are still my friends all these decades later. And while it saddens me to realize that our parents were products of an era informed by Jim Crow’s mendacity, we also knew we all came from good people. Shirt-off-their-back kind of people. People who instilled values in us. People who watched out for other people’s kids.
Even those kids on the other side of the woods.